Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Colombia Exports Its 'New School' Blueprint

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Colombia Exports Its 'New School' Blueprint

Article excerpt

To make up for the failings of traditional rural schools, Colombia's Escuela Nueva movement offers flexible and efficient solutions which are being taken up in other countries

At La Nina school, the teacher doesn't stand in front of the class dishing out knowledge. Instead he sits amid a group of pupils having a discussion with them. The children, of different ages, work not at individual desks but around hexagonal tables. The teacher doesn't deliver a lecture or give orders. Each child goes and fetches a self-instructional guide and then settles down to study. The teacher doesn't demand silence in class, because the school not only allows but strongly encourages discussion and group-work.

La Nina, in Colombia's coffee-growing Andean province of Caldas, is a rural school run according to the principles of the New School (Escuela Nueva) movement, which was devised by Colombian education experts who have managed to turn the disadvantages of rural schools - lack of equipment, one-room establishments and one or at most two teachers for children of different ages and abilities - into assets, providing a positive experience which instills self-reliance, responsibility and teamwork.

"The thing you notice most when you visit a 'new school' is how hard the pupils are concentrating," says Ernesto Schiefelbein, a former Chilean education minister and now rector of Santiago de Chile's Santo Tomas University, who visited the first "new school" in Colombia in 1985. "Sometimes when the bell rings for playtime, many children are so absorbed they just continue working. So learning comes easily. You also notice that they're always asking questions, which is a very good way to judge how effectively they're learning."


The watchword of the "new school" method is self-instruction based on specially-written guides (guias) covering maths, natural and social sciences and languages. These guides are something more than textbooks; they suggest activities and exercises that can be done both in and out of school, along with detailed instructions that enable the child to go at his or her own speed.

So pupils make progress according to their ability and the time they have available, focusing on the subjects that interest them most or which they find most difficult. At harvest time, they are allowed to go off and help their families, afterwards resuming their lessons where they left off. This has helped to reduce the amount of special coaching needed and also dropout numbers, which are considerable in Colombia's small rural communities, where between half and three-quarters of all children do not go to school or else drop out after a couple of years.

The guides have been criticized for being too structured and for curbing teachers' creativity, but they are very useful, inexpensive teaching materials that can enable a single teacher to run a one-class school. They give the teacher time to both help the youngest children to read and attend to those who have problems learning.

The critics also forget that teachers in developing countries are usually not very well trained. In Latin America, says Schiefelbein, there is "the myth of the dynamic teacher who can work wonders with kids" when the evidence is that "after six years of primary school, half the continent's children can't understand a simple article on the front page of a newspaper."The big advantage of the guides is that they can be easily followed by poorly-trained teachers and also give pupils a lot of independence.

Teacher training is a key element of the system. Teachers have to learn to use new educational tools which encourage both the pupils and the community to get involved. They also have to drop the teacher's traditional authoritarian role as a transmitter of knowledge. Each year teachers attend three one-week workshops, and visit a demonstration school to "learn by doing" and see the advantages of the new method with their own eyes. …

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